Three lifehacks I learned waiting tables that still inform everything I do

Three lifehacks I learned waiting tables that still inform everything I do
Image: REUTERS/Michael Dalder
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I fed and clothed myself all through college serving people. I waited tables at a fancy restaurant frequented by celebrities and owned by the son of a dead mobster. I lugged oversized mugs of beer up and down stairs wearing a cheerleading outfit at a raucous sports bar. I was tortured by drunk patrons who tipped terribly and lost it every time “Margaritaville” played at a Jersey Shore beachside pub/piano bar.

Everyone should wait tables. We’d all be much kinder to each other if we shared an experience of being summoned by a finger snap.

Working as a server also gives you some serious practical skills. Waiting tables taught me to juggle a disparate set of detailed demands under high pressure. The Saturday night rush rewired my brain and leveled-up my executive functioning. I learned how to to plan, prioritize, anticipate, delegate, and decide. Plus, having to slow down to steam milk for a cappuccino during a hectic brunch shift was honestly my first real-life encounter with the practice of Zen.

Waiting tables was a survival job, but it left me with survival skills that I still use today.

“Full hands in, full hands out”

Here’s how it works. Every trip you make needs to be meaningful. You don’t 1) take someone’s order and go into the kitchen. And then 2) come out and check on another table.

You 1) full hands in: Take someone’s order and on the way into the kitchen check on another table, clear some plates and bring those in with you. And then, once you’re in the kitchen you 2) full hands out: Pick up hot food from the expediter that has just been served up by the surly chef. Exit, serve that, and then check on another table.

“Full hands in, full hands out” requires planning. Your trip into the kitchen has to be timed so that your order is ready to come out. To fill that time in, you check in on those other tables to the clear plates.

Years later, I use FHIFHO in my every day life. My routes to work and home are generally planned around a series of errands that I maximize in each direction.

Full hands in is especially useful if you work in a large company with sprawling campus dependent on hundreds of daily interactions. I find it hard enough as it is to peel myself away from my desk, so knowing that each trip is productive makes it easier. On the way to a meeting, for instance, I’ll fill up my water bottle, stop by my colleague’s desk to drop off money for Girl Scout cookies, and on the way back follow up with another to review a story before returning to my desk.

Of course, this eliminates a lot of aimless walking around (which has its own time and place). Full hands is a great tactic when you you’re trying to cram a lot of tasks into a short space of time.

Ask open-ended questions

“Is everything ok?”
The answer is most likely yes. We all have an impulse to appear as if everything is “Just fine, thank you,” even, or especially if we’ve taken a major spill on the corner of the carpet at a cocktail party.

“How is everything?” is a better question. That’s a query that can start a conversation. The work equivalent is “What do you think?” When you are checking in with a colleague, unless you carrying a clipboard with list that you need to tick-off, invite a back-and-forth.

People first, plates second

Have you ever sat waiting for the check and watched your server pick up empty glasses from an abandoned table while chatting with the busboy? Always choose breathing entities over inert ones. Sure, sometimes you have a line of people waiting to get through the door, so you have to clean up a mess to make room for them. But your guests, clients, customers, colleagues, friends, and loved ones require attention that forks and knives do not. Look away from your email when someone comes to talk to you, put down your phone or close your laptop if a person wants to engage IRL. Pick humans over content.

(Oh, and when opening a bottle of sparkling wine—turn the bottle, not the cork.)